Is there any dish more indulgent and seductively rich than a well-made Indian curry, lavished with enough ghee and spice that a bowl of lentils or cauliflower or spinach mysteriously turns into a full-blown gustatory revelation? The traditional cuisine of north India, where layer upon layer of butter and fresh spices can send a humble plateful of veggies to new heights, is not exactly known for its restraint. And restraint is definitely, gratefully, not on the menu at Nandini Indian Cuisine, a Tempe restaurant that exemplifies the deeply complex, richly layered flavors of northern Indian cooking.
You probably would not think to characterize the food at Nandini as particularly inventive; the restaurant is home to the same kind of Punjabi-inflected menu you'll find at most Indian food restaurants around the Valley, where classics like tandoori chicken and chicken tikka are still the centerpiece of every menu. But while Nandini isn't a bastion of esoteric or highly regional cooking, its sprawling menu of skillfully prepared tandoori-style meats and thickly made vegetable curries more than satisfies.
The restaurant's dining room, situated in the airy corner space of a sleepy strip mall, is about as unfussy and straightforward as the menu. You won't find any TVs flashing Indian pop music videos or Bollywood flicks playing in the background, and you won't dine on banquettes decorated with rich fabrics, or eat food served in gleaming copper tureens. There are a few glittering curios scattered judiciously around the room, along with framed Indian art and the requisite bowl of breath-sweetening cardamom pods placed strategically near the exit. Tucked neatly into the corner, there also is a buffet table with heat lamps and steam trays, which are used only during the restaurant's popular budget-priced lunch buffet, where for less than $10 you can fill up on a spread that includes tandoori chicken, palak paneer, and other Indian curries.
If you can resist the lure of the buffet line and order straight off the menu, or if you come for dinner, your meal will begin with a complimentary basket of papadum. The oversize crackers, embedded with seeds and aromatics, are shatteringly delicate and mildly nutty in flavor. They're served with a couple of chutneys, which include a slightly minty but mostly bland green chutney, along with a thin, livelier sweet imli chutney made from tamarind juice.
The papadum is a nice treat, but light enough that you still may want to explore the appetizer menu, which includes classic roadside snacks like samosa chaat. The dish essentially is an oversize vegetable samosa topped with a muddle of minty chutney, yogurt, and chopped tomato. The samosa, stuffed with a savory chickpea mash, is fine and crispy, but the toppings lean toward being bland. Chicken pakoras are a better option. The grizzled-looking deep-fried fritters, sometimes called the Indian version of chicken nuggets, have been gently spiced with hints of cumin and red chile, and deftly prepared so that the meat stays juicy and moist out of the fryer. It's about as refined as any deep-fried boneless chicken dish you'll find anywhere.
On the entrée side of the menu, classic tandoori-style dishes shine. These are prepared in the traditional manner, which means they are marinated in spices then flash-cooked in a clay oven that has been heated upward of 900 degrees. Nandini's take on tandoori chicken is excellent, the skinless chicken legs smoky, spicy, and moist and dyed a fiery shade of red.
Lamb boti kebabs, also made tandoori-style, are even more succulent. The tender cubes of marinated lamb are served sizzling on a bed of onions and green peppers on a heated steel platter. As with everything on the menu, you can tailor the dish to your preferred level of spiciness. If you order the lamb at the lower end of the heat spectrum, the fragrantly marinated meat delivers only a pleasantly sweet kick of gingery spice.
As with most Indian restaurants, vegetarian entrées abound, including a fearsomely rich malai kofta. The creamy onion-tomato gravy, gently seasoned with garam masala, is a complex medley of cinnamony sweetness and peppery heat, plus a good dose of heavy cream. Round, savory kofta dumplings, resembling something like meatballs, add a rich, nutty heft. Eating this intensely rich, creamy dish feels indulgent and downright decadent, as if you were sneaking gravy straight out of the boat.
The house matar paneer is similarly rich and irresistible. The thick tomato and cashew gravy appears dense at first glance, but it melts into a silky, buttery finish on your tongue. It's studded with green peas and creamy cubes of paneer cheese, the latter adding another layer of creaminess to the dish.
Then there's the house butter chicken, otherwise known as murgh makhani, which is often thought of as the General Tso dish of Indian food. The dish is subject to wide regional variances, and where it's cooked sweet in some kitchens, it might be spicy or tangy in others. Here, the dish leans toward being creamy and buttery, its velvety red sauce scented with cumin and ginger. The roasted chicken part of the dish is quite good, but the hunks of chicken are mostly vehicles for soaking up more of that wonderful sauce.
If all these dishes sound exhaustingly heavy and rich, the kitchen offers a small excursion from ghee-heavy curries and tandoori-style meats in the form of vindaloo. Vindaloo, a dish popularized in the western Indian region of Goa, has earned a reputation as the ultimate palate-searing curry, the one that separates the diehard curry aficionados from the dabblers and dilettantes. If you order it extra spicy at Nandini, the chunky, garlicky tomato-and-chile curry, which is available with your choice of chicken, lamb, or shrimp, is blisteringly hot. But once you get past the heat, if you manage, you'll notice it's also pleasantly light and even mildly sweet.
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Like many tandoori-style restaurants, Nandini dedicates an entire menu to naan, the oven-baked flatbread that you can order lightly stuffed with everything from nuts and spices to minced roasted lamb. There is, of course, plain naan, pliable yet slightly charred, and pretty much the perfect instrument for scooping up curry and cutting some of the heat in your vindaloo. It's also worth trying the shahi naan, a pleasantly sweet bread stuffed with coconut shavings and slivers of nuts.
Nandini has the usual sort of desserts, including gulab jamun, the spongy, milky balls dunked in syrup that are nearly always the dessert course at your local Indian lunch buffet. But after a meal of vindaloo or other heavily spiced curry, you may be better off with the house rice kheer, a refreshing milky rice pudding that seems engineered to cool down the digestive system in the most pleasing way possible. Another option might be a tall glass of mango lassi, but the one here is a little too watery and weak. Thankfully, you simply can't say the same thing about Nandini's curries.
Nandini Indian Cuisine
1845 East Broadway Road, Suite 101, Tempe
Hours: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Samosa chaat $6.99
Lamb boti kebab $15.99
Malai kofta $11.99
Shrimp vindaloo $14.99